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Readers Corner: The Part That Burns

readers corner Aug 09, 2021

The Part That Burns, A Memoir by Jeannine Ouellette

Memoir writers need to uphold their bargain with the reader to be trustworthy, to tell the truth as they remember it. See how deftly Ouellette does that here. She states a fact but says she doesn’t remember it happening. Only her sister does. With that one simple statement, we know we can trust this narrator. She’s not going to lie to us.

Memoir writers need to choose their perspective. Who is narrating this story? The adult author looking back on her life? The child as she is experiencing events? Jeannine Ouellette does both in this fragmented memoir, which can be tricky but she’s got the writing chops to do it. Can’t you just hear the young Jeannine here?

There’s a principle in writing known as Chekhov’s gun. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Everything you include in your story must have a purpose, a function. In this piece, the author spends a lot of time on roses, specifically on the pruning of them. Subconsciously, the reader is saying to herself, “Why is this here? It must be important somehow.” And when you read on, you realize it is.

One of the main things memoir writers struggle with is structure. What container will best tell this story? After trying more traditional, chronological structures, Ouellette arrived at the fragmented structure we see in The Part That Burns, telling her story in pieces. She circles back to events again and again, in what is called a spiral structure. See here how she alerts us that she’s going to revisit a story we already know, but from a different angle.

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